Leafs loose as season wanes

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:06 AM ET

While many of their opponents these days are squeezing their sticks during the final days of the NHL playoff push, the Maple Leafs don't have such worries.

As time winds down on Season 1 of the team's great rebuild, the Leafs have played some entertaining hockey, most recently this past Saturday's 5-2 win over Montreal.

"In the whole scheme of things, it's pretty easy to play this time of year when you are not in a playoff run," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said yesterday. "We're not out of it yet (mathematically) so I shouldn't really say that, but we haven't had any pressure on us for over a month.

"You are seeing Ottawa do the same thing right now, (going) 9-1 in the last 10 games."

The Leafs aren't yet mathematically out of the race, but with nine games remaining, the day is coming. Prior to last night, the Leafs were eight points behind eighth-place Montreal, which is clinging to the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.

The lack of playoff pressure has afforded the team some luxuries, such as allowing young players to get valuable ice time. Veterans, meanwhile, have something to play for given the likelihood that there will be considerable changes by next season.

"We've got a group of guys in here who have stuck together all year," Jason Blake said yesterday. "We've got nine games left and hopefully we'll finish on a great note."

The next challenge is to get up for a midweek game at the Air Canada Centre, a task the Leafs have struggled with much of the season. Tonight it's the powerful Southest Division-leading Washington Capitals.

"That's a good team and if you are not crossing the t's and dotting the i's, they can embarrass you," Wilson said. "We feel fairly confidence in our game right now.

"But with all their skill up front, you have to come prepared to play."


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